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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Russian Nihilism: “Going to the People”
By Emilia Pardo Bazán (1852–1921)
 
From ‘Russia: Its People and Its Literature’: Translated from the Spanish by Fanny Hale Gardiner

IT requires more courage to do what Russians call going to the people, than to bear exile or the gallows. In our society, which boasts of its democracy, the very equalization of classes has strengthened the individual instinct of difference; and especially the aristocrats of mind—the writers and thinkers—have become terribly nervous, finicky, and inimical to the plebeian smell, to the extent that even novels which describe the common people with sincerity and truth displease the public taste. Yet the Nihilists, a select company from the point of view of intellectual culture, go, like apostles, in search of the poor in spirit, the ignorant and the humble. The sons of families belonging to the highest classes, alumni of universities, leave fine clothes and books, dress like peasants, and mix with factory hands, so as to know them and to teach them; young ladies of fine education return from a foreign tour, and accept with the utmost contentment situations as cooks in manufacturers’ houses, so as to be able to study the labor question in their workshops. We find very curious instances of this in Turgenev’s novel ‘Virgin Soil.’ The heroine Mariana, a Nihilist, in order to learn how the people live, and to simplify herself (this is a sacramental term), helps a poor peasant woman in her domestic duties. Here we have the way of the world reversed: the educated learns of the ignorant, and in all that the peasant woman does or says, the young lady finds a crumb of grace and wisdom. “We do not wish to teach the people,” she explains: “we wish to serve them.” “To serve them?” replies the woman, with hard practicality; “well, the best way to serve them is to teach them.” Equally fruitless are the efforts of Mariana’s “fictitious husband,” or “husband by free grace,” as the peasant woman calls him,—the poet and dreamer Nedjanof, who thinks himself a Nihilist, but in the bottom of his soul has the aristocratic instincts of the artist. Here is the passage where he presents himself to Mariana dressed in workmen’s clothes:—
          “Mariana uttered an exclamation of surprise. At first she did not know him. He wore an old caftan of yellowish drill, short-waisted, and buttoned with small buttons; his hair was combed in the Russian style, with the part in the middle; a blue kerchief was tied around his neck; he held in his hand an old cap with a torn visor, and his feet were shod with undressed calfskin.”
  1
  Mariana’s first act on seeing him in this guise is to tell him that he is indeed ugly; after which disagreeable piece of information, and a shudder of repugnance at the smell of his greasy cap and dirty sleeves, they provide themselves with pamphlets and socialist proclamations, and start out on their Odyssey among the people, hoping to meet with ineffable sufferings. He would be no less glad than she of a heroic sacrifice, but he is not content with a grotesque farce; and the girl is indignant when Solomine, her professor in nihilism, tells her that her duty actually compels her to wash the children of the poor, to teach them the alphabet, and to give medicine to the sick. “That is for Sisters of Charity,” she exclaims, inadvertently recognizing a truth: the Catholic faith contains all ways of loving one’s neighbor, and none can ever be invented that it has not foreseen. But the human type of the novel is Nedjanof, although the Nihilists have sought to deny it. There is one very sad and real scene in which he returns drunk from one of his propagandist excursions, because the peasants whom he was haranguing compelled him to drink as much as they. The poor fellow drinks and drinks, but he might as well have thrown himself upon a file of bayonets. He comes home befuddled with vodka, or perhaps more so with the disgust and nausea which the brutish and malodorous people produced in him. He had never fully believed in the work to which he had consecrated himself: now it is no longer skepticism, it is invincible disgust that takes hold upon his soul, urging him to despair and suicide. The lament of his lost revolutionary faith is contained in the little poem entitled ‘Dreaming,’ which I give literally as follows:—

          “It was long since I had seen my birthplace, but I found it not at all changed. The deathlike sleep, intellectual inertia, roofless houses, ruined walls, mire and stench, scarcity and misery, the insolent looks of the oppressed peasants,—all the same! Only in sleeping, we have outstripped Europe, Asia, and the whole world. Never did my dear compatriots sleep a sleep so terrible!
  “Everything sleeps: wherever I turn, in the fields, in the cities, in carriages, in sleighs, day and night, sitting or walking; the merchant and the functionary, and the watchman in the tower, all sleep in the cold or in the heat! The accused snores and the judge dozes; the peasants sleep the sleep of death; asleep they sow and reap and grind the corn; father, mother, and children sleep! The oppressed and the oppressor sleep equally well!
  “Only the gin-shop is awake, with eyes ever open!
  “And hugging to her breast a jug of fire-water, her face to the Pole, her feet to the Caucasus, thus sleeps and dreams on forever our Mother, Holy Russia!”
  2
 
  To all Nihilist intents and purposes, particularly to those of a political character, the masses are apparently asleep. Many eloquent anecdotes refer to their indifference. A young lady propagandist, who served as cook on a farm, confesses that the peasants spitefully accused her of taking bread from the poor. In order to get them to take their pamphlets and leaflets the Nihilists present them as religious tracts, adorning the covers with texts of Scripture and pious mottoes and signs. Only by making good use of the antiquated idea of distribution (of goods) have they any chance of success; it is of no use to talk of autonomous federations, or to attack the Emperor, who has the people on his side.  3
  The active Nihilists are always young people; and this is reason enough why they are not completely discouraged by the sterility of their efforts. Old age abhors fruitless endeavors; and, better appreciating the value of life, will not waste it in tiresome experiments. And this contrast between the ages, like that between the seasons, is nowhere so sharp as in Russia; nowhere else is the difference of opinions and feelings between two generations so marked. Some one has called nihilism a disease of childhood, like measles or diphtheria; perhaps this is not altogether erroneous, not only as regards individuals, but also as regards society, for vehemence and furious radicalism are the fruit of historical inexperience,—of the political youth of a nation. The precursor of nihilism, Herzen, said, with his brilliant imagery and vigor of expression, that the Russia of the future lay with a few insignificant and obscure young folks, who could easily hide between the earth and the soles of the autocrat’s boots; and the poet Mikailov, who was sentenced to hard labor in 1861, and subsequently died under the lash, exclaimed to the students: “Even in the darkness of the dungeon I shall preserve sacredly in my heart of hearts the incomparable faith that I have ingrafted upon the new generation.”  4
  It is sad to see youth decrepit and weary from birth, without enthusiasm or ambition for anything. It is more natural that the sap should overflow, that a longing for strife and sacrifice, even though foolish and vain, should arise in its heart. This truth cannot be too often repeated: to be enthusiastic, to be full of life, is not ridiculous; but our pusillanimous doctrine of disapproval is ridiculous indeed, especially in life’s early years,—as ridiculous as baldness at twenty, or wrinkles and palsy at thirty. Besides, we must recognize something more than youthful ardor in nihilism, and that is, sympathetic disinterestedness. The path of nihilism does not lead to brilliant position or destiny: it may lead to Siberia or to the gibbet.  5
 
 
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